A Conversation with Nicholas Horbaczewski CEO & Founder of the Drone Racing League
I had the pleasure to interview Nicholas Horbaczewski. Nicholas is the CEO & Founder of the Drone Racing League (DRL), the premier international drone racing platform. Before founding DRL in 2015, Nicholas served as the Chief Revenue Officer of Tough Mudder, the largest mass participation running event series in the world, which grew to over 60 global events and $100mm in revenue during his time there. Prior to Tough Mudder, he developed an interest in multicopters while the Chief Information Officer of ADS, a $1.5b distributor of advanced hardware to the US government. Nicholas also co-founded Leeden Media, an entertainment company for feature-length independent films, and brings his love of production to his work at DRL. Nicholas was recently selected to Crain’s 40 Under 40 list and recognized by Fast Company for building one of the Most Innovative Companies in the world of 2017.
What is your “backstory”?
I’m the CEO and Founder of The Drone Racing League (DRL), the international premier drone racing circuit for elite pilots — that’s often been pegged as “the sport of the future.”
Before founding DRL in 2015, I was the Chief Revenue Officer of Tough Mudder, the largest mass participation running event series in the world, which grew to over 60 global events and $100mm in revenue during my time there. Prior to Tough Mudder, I developed an interest in multicopters while I was the Chief Information Officer of ADS, a distributor of advanced hardware to the US government. I also co-founded Leeden Media, an entertainment company for feature-length independent films, and bring my love of media production to our work at DRL.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to found a company that sits at the intersection of my three passions: Sports, technology and media. I still remember the first time I saw FPV racing in early 2015 on an empty field behind a Home Depot in Long Island. I was with Ryan Gury (DRL Head of Product). It was truly a hobbyist sport at the time, with home built drones and no real structure. Still, I was captivated by the speed and excitement, and there were moments it reminded me of Star Wars or racing video games I had played growing up. I felt driven to see if I could help make it into something bigger and shared with a broad audience. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t understand the hurdles that lay ahead to build out the technology, media and sports ecosystem required to bring drone racing to a mass audience. I probably would never have even tried.
Fast forward two years later, and I’m very proud that DRL is now aired in more than 80 countries on leading sports networks including ESPN, Sky, ProSiebensat.1, OSN, Disney XD and FOX Sports Asia, is partnered with some of the world’s top brands including Allianz (our title sponsor), BMW, Amazon Prime Video, Swatch, Bud Light, Toy State, FORTO Coffee Shots and the U.S. Air Force, and that our world-class engineers constantly innovate the technology — from hand-building the DRL Racer3, the high-speed racing drones flown throughout our 2017 Season, to the DRL RacerX, the Guinness World Record setting fastest racing drone on the planet.
Which person or which company do you most admire and why?
Strauss Zelnick, who runs Zelnick Media Capital and is the CEO of Take-Two Interactive (maker of the Grand Theft Auto and NBA2K video game franchises) is someone I admire because he defines success broadly. His accomplishments in business are numerous and he very effectively runs two complex organizations. Beyond that, though, he is very dedicated to mentoring people at all stages of their careers, myself included, and takes the time and energy required to genuinely impact their lives. He is also passionate about fitness and pursues it with such vigor that he’s been called ‘America’s fittest CEO.” Like a lot of other startup CEOs, I often feel I talk about the things I value beyond work, but in reality, struggle to make room for them in my life. Watching someone like Strauss define success to include mentoring and fitness and genuinely incorporate them into his daily life is a reminder that a narrow definition of success can be a form of laziness or a ready-made excuse. It’s humbling to know Strauss has the same 24 hours in the day that I do.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Drone racing is truly an amazing sport. It’s open to people of all ages and genders, it crosses language and cultural barriers, and it teaches participants about engineering, robotics, and computer programing. We’re proud to be introducing this sport to millions of young people around the world. During our 2016 Season, more than 33 million fans tuned in across 40 countries around the world, and over 70 million people viewed our content digitally. We just wrapped our 2017 season, and hosted our first spectator event during the 2017 Allianz World Championship finale race in London’s Alexandra Palace, where 1,500 people came together to cheer as 90mph-flying drones whizzed by. Our fans loved watching such a fiercely competitive race, and we’re looking forward to continue to introduce our new form of entertainment — that’s like a real-life video game — to live, broadcast and online viewers alike.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1) Don’t assume the technology exists. It still makes me cringe to think of how naively I assumed the technology to do professional drone racing existed when I started DRL. It was easy to let myself believe… amateur drone racing was a growing global sport, drones were common, and I met vendors and ‘experts’ who told me about various ‘silver bullet’ technologies that were going make it easy. A few months into DRL we hit a wall, discovering just how far away off-the-shelf technology really was from the professional level. We had to totally reboot as a company, and develop a team of world-class engineers to design and hand-build all DRL racing drones in-house. I meet a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs working in drones, VR, AR, etc. who are making the same mistake, chasing a big dream and just assuming they can buy the tech they need to bring it to life. I know the same painful lesson we learned may lay ahead for them.
2) Manage Expectations. In the early days of a startup, a lot of what you’re selling is vision and passion. It can feel like it’s your only currency with would-be investors, employees, and partners… and you need those people. The temptation to over-promise is strong. The reality, though, is that your real currency is credibility, and that requires walking a very fine line between sharing your vision and managing expectations. In the early days of DRL we planned an event we billed as “the Grand Prix of Drone Racing” and invited angels, VCs and potential partners to check it out. About two months out, we realized our technology was not ready and the event would not live up to the dazzling race we had promised. So, while my team dug back into the design and engineering, I embarked on the very humbling journey to personally visit each of our potential investors and tell them that I couldn’t deliver on my initial promise and they would see more of proof of concept instead. Frankly, we got lucky. We had made that promise to a limited number of people and we discovered the problem far enough out to reset expectations, and many of the investors I met with then are investors in DRL today. It was still a sobering lesson, made even more so as we have watched so many other drone racing companies go down in flames by over-promising and under-delivering on major public events, and permanently losing credibility with their fans, sponsors, and investors. It’s a reminder that you don’t always get a second chance to manage expectations.
3) Making a consumer technology product is very difficult. Because DRL built our own tech stack that enables professional drone racing, I would routinely get asked why we weren’t making and selling our own consumer drone. I even remember a meeting I had with a big-name VC who said they wanted to invest but only if we started down the road of our consumer drone. I was so conflicted, and wasted far too much time struggling with the decision, but in the end, we opted to stay focused on professional racing. Since then, watching well-funded companies with amazing engineering teams like Lily Drone and GoPro try and fail to bring a consumer drone to market has been an after-the-fact cautionary tale of how disastrous that could have been. Instead of doing it alone, DRL partnered with Nikko Air to bring the DRL Race Vision 220 FPV Pro drone to market, an amazing drone now available all over the world. Finding a company to do a licensing deal with and building a successful partnership can seem more daunting than building a product, especially if your DNA is in technology development, but over the long term, it is a far less challenging road.
4) No victory laps. We tell that to the pilots in DRL when they’re racing, but it applies to starting a company too. The milestones you hit in a startup that garner attention (like landing your first big contract) are almost always just interim steps and you need to remind yourself that the real work will lie ahead even as you get calls from press, VCs etc. I remember when DRL signed its first major TV contract at almost the exact same time as a would-be competitor. It was tempting to celebrate, and this other company did and took a lot of the attention for themselves. At the time, it was hard, but it was one of the best things that happened to DRL. Instead of taking a victory lap, we focused on all the complexities of delivering ESPN-quality TV sports content. When the time came to actually go on air, we were ready, and this other company wasn’t and eventually collapsed under the pressure of living up to their TV commitments.
5) Get a great lawyer. Oddly, I feel like this will be the most controversial of these, yet this is the piece of advice I give the most often and with the most emphasis to people who want to start a company. I’m amazed how often I meet entrepreneurs who tell me they hate lawyers or just try to find the cheapest solution to legal work. That seems crazy. Doing “deals”, be it fundraising, commercial contracts, IP licensing, etc., is really complicated, and success requires a lot of deal strategy. Almost certainly the counter-party is going to have significantly more experience than you; if this is your first time raising a round and the VC across the table has done 1,000 deals, who is going to be better at negotiating that deal? Choosing a legal counsel that brings deep experience and from whom you take strategic, not just legal, advice is one of the very few decisions you can make to improve your odds of success in those deals. Sometimes I get asked ‘what’s the secret to your success’… his name is Larry Yanowich. He’s a lawyer at Morrison Foerster. Call him.